“Why a Biden-Harris Administration should prioritize the Peace Corps”

 

By William G. Moseley (Mali 1987–89)

 

Americans suffer from a tendency to look inward, an affliction recently exacerbated by isolationist political winds as well as the COVID-19 pandemic. Now more than ever, America needs the Peace Corps as a vehicle: for its citizens to engage with and learn from the rest of the world; to cultivate the careers of young people who will be of vital service to the country; and to foster a more climate friendly international development approach. Herewith three arguments for why a Biden-Harris Administration should prioritize this federal agency and key steps to get there.

FIRST, the Peace Corps can help the US emerge from four years of isolationism by re-building person-to-person bridges between Americans and other peoples. Since its creation during the Kennedy Administration in 1961, over 240,000 Americans have served as Peace Corps volunteers in 142 countries. While the Peace Corps is commonly thought of as a grass roots development organization that places Americans for two years of service in communities in the Global South, it also serves as a vital conduit for cross-cultural exchange. Most former Peace Corps volunteers, including myself, will tell you that they learned far more from the people they served than those communities learned from them. Many volunteers leave their service more grounded, empathetic and willing to serve their communities back home. We need to more greatly acknowledge and value this cross-cultural exchange aspect of the Peace Corps.

SECOND, the Peace Corps can help train young Americans and develop vital human capital at home. As a college professor, I can tell you that young people are hurting. Recent graduates are stymied by a lack of employment opportunities, and those with international interests face even worse prospects. America’s young people need hope and a more robust Peace Corps would not only offer people jobs, but a chance to better understand the world and prepare for a career in government service, teaching or healthcare. Young people voted for the Biden-Harris ticket in overwhelming margins and making them a priority in government programs is an investment in the future.

Furthermore, the federal government needs talented, young civil servants. We are in the midst of a massive renewal of the civil service as the baby boom generation retires, a trend that has accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic. The US State Department has been especially hard hit, facing the one-two punch of an administration hostile to diplomacy and a disease that disproportionately threatens older employees in the workplace. For years the Peace Corps has served as a pipeline of new employees into the federal government, and especially into the State Department and the US Agency for International Development. These agencies are well served by employees who, because of Peace Corps service, are grounded in the realities of Global South and understand the day-to-day existence of working class people in other countries.

THIRD, conventional development approaches that emphasize big infrastructure investments and the use of exogenous technology are not only expensive, but often detrimental to the environment and food security. While the Peace Corps sends volunteers around the world to engage in many forms of work, they have long had personnel working in a variety of climate related fields, including sustainable agriculture, urban gardening, nutrition, environmental education, conservation, forestry and water resources management. In most cases, the Peace Corps emphasizes low-tech approaches that are accessible to the poorest of the poor and help build a more resilient natural resource base. Peace Corps should be at the center of American efforts to address climate change and global hunger.

 

A Biden-Harris Administration can do a few things in its first 100 days in office to make the Peace Corps more central to its efforts to re-emerge from global isolation, engage and employ young people, and fight climate change.

FIRST, all volunteers were pulled back from service during COVID-19 and it will be a huge lift to reactivate the agency. This will take money. The Trump Administration has asked for $396.2 million for the agency in its latest annual budget request, down from the current level of funding of $410 million. This is a ridiculously low amount given the much needed Peace Corps reopening and the fact that many more people apply to the Peace Corps than there are positions available. A more reasonable amount would be $550 million, which is a drop in the bucket compared to the $636 billion budgeted for defense in 2021.

SECOND, appoint an articulate and visionary Peace Corps Director to reimagine the role of agency and connect with US public, members of congress and foreign leaders. While a former volunteer has only led the agency a few times, ex-volunteers with extensive international experience have often made the best directors.

 

With the possible exception of JFK, the Peace Corps has been a peripheral agency for American presidents. As we emerge from isolationism, youth unemployment, a devastated foreign service, and climate change denialism, the Biden-Harris Administration must recognize and elevate the import of this little agency in moving its plans forward.

William G. Moseley is DeWitt Wallace Professor of Geography, and Director of the Program for Food, Agriculture & Society, at Macalester College in Saint Paul, MN. He served in the Peace Corps in Mali from 1987-89 and currently sits on a scientific advisory body to the UN Committee on World Food Security.

 

10 Comments

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  • Excellent argument.

    Here is another, related bit we could add.

    Just today I was talking to Kate Browne, a disaster anthropologist, about a Brené Brown podcast that she (Kate) plans to use as a prompt in her public anthropology class. Briefly, the Brené Brown topic addresses FFTs: Fucking First Times (Brown is a Texas girl and not averse to using colorful language). One of the points of her podcast is that anything we do for the first time is hard, and in a time of COVID we have all encountered lots of FFTs. She goes on to point out that “Learning how to stay standing in the midst of feeling unsure and uncertain — that’s the foundation of courage.”

    Every PCV I have ever met can rattle off a litany of FFTs that define the volunteer experience. We all know by heart that feeling of being simultaneously stressed, anxious, and confused. And we return home with the knowledge that despite the discomfort, we have lived to tell stories about it all. That capacity to instantly “get it” that the unsafe feeling that arrives with a FFT can be managed benefits our society. We have had practice with being present in strange situations. We have learned to be brave. Or as abbreviations would have it: a good ROI from PCVs who have encountered their share of FFTs.

  • As a fervent Peace Corps supporter, a former PCV, and a board member of the Ethiopia/Eritrea Returned PCV group, I have to say this blog is really a bit much. Everything Moseley says about the PC is true and his recommendations are fine. Where it verges on dumb is the word “prioritize.” With covid, the shattered economy, race relations, rebuilding alliances, repairing all the damage done by by the Trumpistas, the PC, important as it is, cannot be a “priority.”

    • Hi Marcus. You raise very good points. At first brush, the Peace Corps does seem less of a priority than the pressing needs that you mention such as COVID, the shattered economy, race relations and rebuilding alliances. However, in each case, I would argue that a significant aspect of the problem is a failure to understand the position of the US in the global system and the long arc of world history. For COVID, we have attempted to go it alone rather than work with the global health community. Our economy is deeply interconnected to the global one and we need a more nuanced approach to building employment at home with an awareness of international linkages. Troubled race relations in the US are part of a much longer history of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and global migration flows. Lastly, rebuilding alliances means understanding where the other side is coming from, not just looking at the situation through American eyes. I see the Peace Corps as a long term investment in building greater awareness of other peoples and cultures at home coupled with a need to employ young people coming out of this recession. Policymakers frequently speak of the win-win of investing in infrastructure with jobs in the short term and the long term benefits of physical capital. Here I suggest that Peace Corps is a vital long term investment in human capital with short term job benefits. Kind Regards, Bill

  • While Peace Corps Volunteers from the US were working in many different countries in the world, the World came to America. Volunteers are no longer the harbingers of “cultural exchange”. Immigrants and refugees fill our cities and towns and schools and are the first Witnesses to life in their Country of Origin, not us.

    OVer 80 languages are spoken in Denver Public schools. Students are refugees, legal immigrants and undocumented immigrants. Aurora, Colorado has the largest Ethopian community outside of the country, itself.
    Our public documents are printed in Spanish as well as English. The Vietnamese language is many times also included. Many RPCVs are working with the immigrant communities in Colorado and/or the immigrants housed along the Texas, New Mexico border, wating for a final determination of their status. RPCV Lawrence Lihosit published oral histories stories of neigbors in his home town of Madera, California. The stories reflect the strong relationships between Mexico and the United States, among other countries.

    My Colorado RPCV Book Club has just finished reading and discussing “The Newcomers” Finding Refuge, Friendship, and Hope in an American Classroom” by Journalist Helent Thorpe. Thorpe spent a school year getting to know the recently arrived high school students who spoke no English. “The newcomers arrive from nations devastated by drought or famine or war.” The students, from many countries and speaking many languages are in the Classroom to begin to learn English.

    Jane, I had a FFT experience in my own town. I had a media knowledge of immigrants. But until I read the book, I had no idea of all the different countries represented or how the Denver community was working with them to help them deal with the multiple demands of a new country and a new life or the trama in the old. I am embarrassed by my own ignorance.

    I do think this is a good time to reassess the function of Peace Corps. I think all three Goals should be reexamined in light of Peace Corps history and current life in the United States.

    • Hi Joanne, you raise a very good point. If I understand your assertion correctly, we may no longer need the Peace Corps as a vehicle for cultural exchange because so many immigrants now speak directly for their cultures in the US. Indeed, where I reside in Minneapolis-St Paul we have the largest Somali population in the US as well as the largest urban Hmong population. We also have significant Latinx, Liberian, Eritrean and Ethiopian populations. All of these groups hold cultural festivals, enrich our k-12 environment, and increasingly share their views in the political sphere as elected officials. I am grateful for the dynamic multicultural environment they have created in my city. All that said, I don’t think this can replace the experience of Americans going to live in a country in the global South, learning the local language, and coming to understand the position of the US in the global system from a vantage point outside of the US. For example, I interact with Chinese students all the time as a college professor and they have taught me a lot about their country and culture, but this is not the same as my son who has lived in China for an extended period of time and speaks fluent Mandarin. I would like to think we can do both, learn from our immigrant brothers and sisters in the US but also realize that we become more globally aware and culturally, politically and linguistically fluent when we spend an extended period of time outside of the US working with everyday people. Regards, Bill

      • Thanks for your comment, Bill. I do not think the Peace Corps shoud be abandoned and I should have made that clear. I think it is time to review how the three goals are implemented, in view of the changing world. I really don’t have answers on what such a review might reveal. I was simply not aware of how much Denver Public Schools was working with newly arrived young refugees. I have much to learn.

        For example, is there a way for RPCVs to share their experiences in-country with immigrants from that country and to learn from that community? This would help to gain a new perspective for official Peace Corps as they design programs?

        I think your professional experience both in the classroom and with the UN is critically important to determining program priorities. The military and the Public Health service offer college scholarlships to students who study and gain skills in a needed profession, Could Peace Corps offer the same opportunity for students to become skilled in fields specializing in “food security”. I think that the Global Pandemic as well as global warming calls for more techical skill even at the grassroots level or maybe precisely at the grass roots level.

        I served in Colombia a half century ago. I learned much about my own culture and through the years have realized how much we did not know about “unanticipated consequences” of our technology.

      • Yes, while Joanne’s point is valid that “the world has come to America” I agree with William that that does not fill in for the knowledge gained by Americans sent abroad in the Peace Corps. My life was forever changed by my time as a PCV in a remote village in Chad. My future work at the State Department was directly informed by my experiences dealing with other cultures as a PCV. There is clearly a continuing role for the Peace Corps. Nothing lost in re-examining what benefits accrue both to our nation and to individual Americans in having the unique perspective of an RPCV. Thanks for this discussion. It makes me remember two photos: a relatively plump me, before leaving for Chad; and thin me, returning from Chad, having lost 35 pounds but having gained a point of view of how others see the United States.

      • Hi Bill,

        I hope so much that you have an opportunity to read John Coyne and Alana deJoseph’s call for RPCV professors and teachers to help develop a lesson plan to accompany the classroom presentation of Alana deJoseph’s Peace Corps documentary, A Towering Task.

        https://peacecorpsworldwide.org/are-you-a-high-school-teacher-teach-the-peace-corps-to-your-students-heres-how/

        I have also suggested that RPCV experts, such as yourself, could use such a platform to help Peace Corps design new programs and evaluate old approaches.

  • I read the attached advice to the Biden-Harris Administration on giving priority to the Peace Corps. As a former volunteer I hope that others will have the opportunity I did to be able to live and work in a developing country. The experience was invaluable to me as a person and, I am relieved to report, I worked on the founding of an institution which, at its time and in its way, provided opportunities to empower women, giving them tools they could use to foster their own independence. I think the work of the volunteers should be independent from the official United States foreign policy efforts: the US Embassy, USAID, the US Military. The volunteers should be assigned to host country agencies and projects which respond to the needs of that country. The host country should define the volunteers’ job descriptions. But, in addition to their official work, volunteers should have the freedom to devote themselves to their interests and their vision of what might fill an important local need. They should be encouraged to pursue these interests with the community and their friends (local residents, other volunteers, etc.) if there is local interest for the idea/activity. This will undoubtedly lead to a broad range of “successful” and “unsuccessful” initiatives but, on the theory that “you never know what works until you try it,” the emphasis should be on giving new ideas a chance and, perhaps, a small budget.

    Since I made my host country my home, thanks to the generosity of its people, I have observed some of the more recent Peace Corps initiatives. I think the volunteers are much more limited than we were in the free-wheeling 1960s. There seem to be many rules which require compliance. Much of the “control” over the volunteers responds to a “safety-first” mantra which may not have a basis in reality and which affects effective relationships with the host-country society. Ideally, the Peace Corps in-country staff should be minimal, and should focus on support to the volunteers–helping them to do their jobs more effectively. Listening is a skill Americans need to develop at all levels and it is a skill the Peace Corps situation requires at every moment. But, this “listening” is also the basis for new relationships between and among the countries and regions of the world which the Biden-Harris team should be anxious to create and repair. The Peace Corps operates at the most basic, grassroots level, the one which is most often ignored or overlooked by official policy. The efforts of the United States should create blueprints for partnership which enable working with other countries and cultures throughout the world in all fields, whether the subject be agricultural production, the reversal of adverse climate conditions, or assistance to refugees, just to name a few areas of concern on a larger global scale. The Peace Corps approach emphasizes and evidences a shared process, one in which all of the participants contribute and none is more or less important than any other. The building or rebuilding of multilateral relationships based upon these principles then is what the Peace Corps can contribute to world problem-solving and one which transcends the nature of the individual project. After all, the realization that “we are all in this together” has never had a more truthful ring. So, including everyone in the solution on equal footing, may not guarantee instant success all of the time—but it is certainly worth consideration. Peace Corps volunteers and ex-Peace Corps volunteers are particularly qualified to navigate in these waters and their approach and their voices deserve to be taken into account.

  • The comments/discussion/exchange of ideas are as interesting and thoughtful as the original offering. I’m very impressed with this use of the platform! It is increasingly a place where ideas can be developed by knowledgeable participants!

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